There may have been a time when planning a social media strategy a full year in advance made sense. That time, however, is not now. What worked in January may no longer be useful today, and what was unknown in December may be August’s hottest property. The ground shifts beneath our feet on a second-to-second basis, and it’s vital we continually reassess the environment in which we do business.
Here’s my contribution to the effort. Rather than wait until December to make my 2013 predictions, I’ve taken stock on what’s happened thus far in 2012 to provide a survival guide for the weeks and months ahead.
I’ll be blunt: I believe we’re entering the most critical six months in the history of the social web. What I see coming has opportunities – and pitfalls – that must be addressed now, for the general good of brands, consumers and the social web as a whole.
Here are the five things that everyone in social media should take note of and act upon now:
Prediction One: The Social Media “Pyramid” Will Continue to Flip, But at a Much Faster Rate
Brands have approached social media the same way they approached advertising, PR and other marketing functions – from the top down. Build followers, Tweet something out, publish on a Facebook fan page, post a comment or two and call it “engagement.” That way of thinking has to die. And that’s exactly what’s starting to happen. The social media pyramid is flipping, and we’re just seeing the beginning right now. What’s remarkable is the speed at which this transformation is taking place. This new paradigm puts consumers and their individual networks of “people, places and content” at the top of the pyramid, driving the conversation rather than being on the receiving end. The upshot? The Internet can no longer be thought of as a bunch of big sites like Facebook and Twitter pushing information to the masses.
Here’s what’s really happening. The web is developing into a giant collection of living, breathing ecosystems – you might even call them organisms – created by the behavior of people who share similar interests and passions. Sometimes they’re connected, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re huge, sometimes they’re tiny. Sometimes they last for years, sometimes they exist for a few days. But they’re real, and becoming part of those ecosystems, sharing content, listening, communicating and adjusting on a minute to minute basis is what the brands who succeed going ahead will be doing.
Prediction Two: Interruption Marketing Is Over. Display Ad Budgets Will Increasingly Be Diverted to Social Media
This is happening right now. I see it with many of my own clients and it’s getting more prevalent every day. Frankly, if I were a display advertising company, I’d be sweating bullets right about now because that approach to advertising is beginning to fade.
Ultimately, anyone who’s trying to build a brand must recognize the new reality, and it’s a reality that I believe will impact sales as early as this holiday season: You’re dealing with an entirely new breed of customer. You can no longer market to them. You must market with them.
Prediction Three: Ownership Will Become Increasingly Irrelevant. The Unowned Web Will Rule
Too many brands have become overly possessive of their “owned” properties on the web. They’re in for a rude awakening. Your website, your Twitter feed and your Facebook fan page will still be useful, but they will ultimately become subordinate to what’s happening “out there,” in what I call the Unowned Web.
Brands are terrified of what they can’t control. I understand that, but let’s look at a real world example. If all your marketing happens inside your store, you’re just preaching to the choir. The real action is out there – getting into the street, meeting people, listening to them, sharing advice. That’s a marketing idea that’s as old as commerce. And yet, for some reason, it frightens digital marketers. It’s time to get past that. Your potential customers are talking to one another in ecosystems across the web. You have to find them and become an organic part of those ecosystems. In other words, get out of your virtual store and meet your customers.
Prediction Four: Companies Will Begin Stocking Their Marketing Departments with Tech Pros and Full-Time “Communitarians”
Here’s where theory becomes reality.
My advice to clients is this: don’t wait another minute. Take some of your smartest tech people and move them from IT and web development into your marketing department. That’s where tech skills will really make the difference in the months and years ahead.
Next, develop a dedicated team of “communitarians” to become your eyes, ears and mouth within the ecosystems that matter to your customers. This isn’t about infiltrating or tricking anyone. It has to be completely transparent. But it’s about much more than pushing information to people or evangelizing to them. Your communitarians should almost serve as ombudsmen of sorts, serving customers, publishing useful content for them, listening to their concerns and fighting on their behalf with as much vigor as they work to serve the brand.
Prediction Five: As the Pyramid Flip Hastens, Two Vital Discussions Will Dominate:
a. How can companies make this new approach to social marketing manageable and cost-effective?
b. What ethical rules of engagement need to be created and agreed upon to protect consumers and safeguard the integrity of social networks going forward?
What I’m talking about is the epitome of “easier said than done.” I get that. The idea of staying on top of rapidly changing ecosystems and becoming an integrated part of your customer’s world is daunting in scope and in practice. But it’s happening nonetheless and brands need to get with the program. Right now, the emphasis has to be on finding a way to discover, monitor and participate in ecosystems. That will be the catalyst that makes all of this possible. When that happens – and believe me, we’re working on it and we’re very close – everything changes.
There is one pitfall, however, that must inform everything about the “post pyramid flip” era: the need to protect the integrity of social ecosystems and the safety of their inhabitants.
As we come to a time when brands will be able to identify and participate in ecosystems, we have to be ever vigilant about the misuse of this approach. Unscrupulous marketers are inclined to take shortcuts, to attempt to fool people, to try and co-opt natural ecosystems for their own use and benefit. It’s absolutely vital that ethical rules of engagement be developed and placed in the forefront. Being welcomed to participate in another’s ecosystem is a privilege and an honor, and we need to do everything within our power to make certain it isn’t abused. That’s a conversation we need to start having right now.
That’s my take on where the rest of 2012 will take us. What’s your outlook?